Fiction: “Northanger Abbey” by Jane Austen

northangerWhen October rolled around, it was time to pick my next Fall Classic. And while my pick for the actual Fall Classic fell slightly short of the goal (IT WAS 2015, THE CUBBIES WERE FATED TO GO TO THE WORLD SERIES, MARTY MCFLY SAID IT WAS SO – why no, I’m not over it yet, why do you ask?), my literature Fall Classic was a poor attempt at trying to come full circle with my (admittedly, thanks to hindsight) poor choice for May Classic Literature Month.

Remember, for 2015’s selection, I elected to read The Mysteries of Udolpho. I am still kicking myself for that library choice. I mean, I just tallied up the books I read last year, and I’m two shy of 2014’s total, and I’m sorry, Ann Radcliffe, but I’m putting all that fault on your shoulders. If I wasn’t so busy reading about Lady Emily having hysterics I could have finished — who knows? Five more books? Seven? I could have hit forty, you bitch.

Ahem.

ANYWAY. When October came around, I realized it only made sense that I should read Northanger Abbey — after all, Northanger Abbey is Jane Austen’s open attempt at satirizing Ann Radcliffe’s master work.

Northanger Abbey was one of the first novels Ms. Austen wrote, but it was only published after her death. The heroine is Miss Catherine Morland, a charming yet naive country girl who gets the chance to experience a Bath season. She is introduced to society at the Pump Room (a Thing in Bath – where debutantes paraded around a fountain and gossiped about everyone else) and becomes friends with Isabella Thorpe, who appears to be a great role model of the upper class to which Catherine aspires. Spoiler alert!: she’s not.

Isabella’s kind of a bitch – she becomes fast friends with Catherine because Catherine’s too naive to see through her Regina George-esque facade. Well, she’s like Regina George only if Regina George was a manipulative husband-hunter.

Maybe she’s more like Karen:

“Very well, Catherine. […] I have not forgot your description of Mr. Tilney — ‘a brown skin, with dark eyes, and rather dark hair.’ Well, my taste is different. I prefer light eyes, and as to complexion — do you know — I like a sallow better than any other.” [p. 47]

So she likes sickly men that she can easily overpower; that’s how I’m interpreting that sentence.

Catherine’s afore-mentioned Mr. Tilney is Henry Tilney, a young parson who has accompanied his sister Eleanor to Bath for the season. (I should mention that in Jane Austen-land, a country parson is someone who can still marry and flirt with girls – we’re not talking a Catholic priest or a Jesuit monk, here.) They hit it off quickly, although Isabella’s brother John also develops an attraction to Catherine. Isabella, meanwhile, begins to fall for Catherine’s brother James. The Thorpes’s attraction is derived completely from a falsehood going through Bath that the Morlands are extremely rich, however.

It all sounds pretty sedate, right? Basically it’s what a modern-day take on a historical romance sounds like. Two fast friends find each other becoming nearly related and one of the girls has a secret admirer. It’s all very quaint. But here’s what Jane Austen’s doing – she’s satirizing the whole damn thing.

Northanger Abbey is Jane Austen’s treatise on what should happen to silly little girls who read too many novels. And in creating that treatise, she tried to put in as many “silly little novel” tropes as possible: the Naive Everygirl; the Love Triangle; the Lemony Narrator, even. And then she subverted them, or heightened them to the point of parody.

Catherine, who is such a fierce lover of literature – including The Mysteries of Udolpho, which, true confessions, I almost typed that just now as “The Musteries of Udolpho,” which implies that Udolpho smells really mildew-ey — automatically goes to the Most Dramatic Option when presented with something that could have even the slightest hint of mystery. When she visits with the Tilneys and finds a large wardrobe in her room, she doesn’t assume it’s a guest wardrobe; she believes she’s going to find something ghastly and suspenseful inside. She gets herself so worked up that when she finds a key in a keyhole and turns it to open it, she actually locks it on herself, and then takes about five minutes before she tries turning it the other way. And when she finally peers inside the drawer, what does she see? Not the desiccated hand of a long-lost Tilney ancestor, but an actual, honest-to-God laundry list. It is a list of laundry items.

That might not seem very funny to us as a modern-day reader; but to someone of Ms. Austen’s time, when The Mysteries of Udolpho and its ilk were the height of literature and there was nothing funny about them, the tricks Ms. Austen pulls on the reader becomes that much sharper and cleaner. General Tilney is oppressive and taciturn – maybe he’s a robber baron like Count Montoni! Oh no wait, he’s just a snob, who also heard the lie about the Morlands being rich. Wait, where does General Tilney go during the day – up to his dead wife’s room? Maybe she’s still alive! So then Catherine goes sneaking around to try and find a maybe-not-so-dead wife, only to be discovered in the act by Henry. But instead of cutting her out of his life for her crazy ideas – because General Tilney actually loved his wife and is still mourning the loss of her, that’s where he’s going, he’s leaving you for some goddamned peace and quiet, Miss Morland! (sorry) – instead, Henry gently mocks her and her propensity to turn the Drama Dial on everything up to 11. In Udolpho, Lady Emily cuts Vaillancourt out of her life when she hears about his gambling without giving him a chance to explain himself. Here, Henry actually listens to Catherine and finds her overactive imagination charming.

Ms. Austen, in her role as narrator, also takes stabs at the fact that Udolpho and its contemporaries are overly long. For instance, our introduction to Isabella Thorpe’s mother:

Mrs. Thorpe was a widow, and not a very rich one; she was a good-humored, well-meaning woman, and a very indulgent mother. Her eldest daughter had great personal beauty, and the younger ones, by pretending to be as handsome as their sister, imitating her air, and dressing in the same style, did very well.

This brief account of the family is intended to supersede the necessity of a long and minute detail from Mrs. Thorpe herself, of her past adventures and sufferings, which might otherwise be expected to occupy the three or four following chapters; in which the worthlessness of lords and attornies might be set forth, and conversations, which had passed twenty years before, be minutely repeated. [40]

Dear Mrs. Radcliffe: can I get you some ice for that BURN? (But it’s true, it’s totally, one million percent true.)

Finally, because this is Alaina’s blog called That’s What She Read, and I am the most twelve, you can only imagine how hard I laughed while I read this otherwise-innocuous paragraph about John Thorpe’s curricle:

“What do you think of my gig, Miss Morland? A neat one, is it not? Well hung; town built; I have not had it a month. It was built for a Christchurch man, a friend of mine, a very good sort of fellow; he ran it a few weeks, till, I believe, it was convenient to have done with it.” [p. 51]

The first time I read Northanger Abbey, I didn’t have the background of The Mysteries of Udolpho. I’m not sure I even knew it was a real book, to be honest. But now that I’ve read both, knowing Udolpho definitely strengthens Northanger Abbey for me. It’s funnier, smarter – knowing the past heightens the present.

That’s not to say that The Mysteries of Udolpho is a piece of shit that should be mocked; just because I didn’t like it and my opinion of the book closely paired with Miss Austen’s opinion of the book which in turn made me enjoy Northanger Abbey more doesn’t mean that someone else might have the opposite opinion. (Right? Right.) After all, I read new books for the adventure – I won’t really know if I’ll like it until I try. And even when I don’t have a favorable opinion of a book after reading it, the pleasure of reading is always present.

And on that note, I’ll leave you with this conversation between Catherine Morland and Henry Tilney:

“But you never read novels, I dare say?”

“Why not?”

“Because they are not clever enough for you — gentlemen read better books.”

“The person, be it a gentleman or lady, who has not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid.” [p. 107]

Well said, Mr. Tilney; well said.

Grade for Northanger Abbey: 4 stars

Fiction: “The House of Mirth” by Edith Wharton

house of mirthSo after I finished Nickel and Dimed, it was October. And looking back – because that’s the type of idiot I am – I realized that October was typically a month where I would dig out a classic work of literature, for one reason or another (see: Brave New World, which killed two birds with one Banned Book stone; and The Mayor of Casterbridge). I decided – rather capriciously, to be honest – to create another Theme Month. And so, from here and in perpetuity, let October be henceforth known as: The Fall Classic.

(Which is also, apparently, the other name of the World Series. But whatever, right?)

I had purchased The House of Mirth years ago, after watching the Gillian Anderson-starring film adaptation. It has been so long since I’ve watched that movie that I could no longer remember the plot, and since none of the rest of the classics I own inspired me, I decided to read this one. Also, if you don’t like Gillian Anderson, I don’t think we can be friends.

The House of Mirth, first and foremost, is a tragedy. The introduction lets us know up front that this tale will not have a happy ending. Our story takes place after the turn of the last century in New York City’s society, and our tragic heroine is Lily Bart, the orphan of parents who lost their money through reckless spending. When her parents pass away, Lily is sent to live with her maiden aunt in the hope of finding a suitable husband.

For in that day and age, the only acceptable future for a woman of Lily’s pedigree lay in achieving a good, solid marriage. But while Lily wants – nay, requires – the financial stability a marriage would bring, she desires her own independence more.

When we first meet Lily, she is dashing across Grand Central Station to meet up with her longtime friend, Lawrence Seldon. She does have another train to catch that evening, a train that will take her to the country home of her other dear friend, Judy Trenor. But during the layover, she’d love to have Seldon get her up to speed on his Americana collection, in the hopes of using that knowledge to get Mr. Percy Gryce, an incredibly wealthy nerd and another guest of Mrs. Trenor, to propose marriage to her.

This is one example of Lily’s smarts: she knows exactly which avenue to take in order to get men to notice her and her flirting skills are unparalleled. She can easily maneuver among the elite caste of New York society to which she aspires to belong. Sadly, her downfall is her inability to compromise her convictions. Because just when her future with Mr. Gryce is all but secured – all she needs to do is accompany him to church and he will propose to her – she oversleeps. So she decides to wait for him to return to the Trenor house via the country lane, and when she runs into Selden, she decides to take a walk with him rather than wait for Mr. Gryce.

Why doesn’t she marry Seldon, you ask? Well for one, he’s never proposed to her. Secondly, while she does care for him, and he for her, she is well aware of her fiscal shortcomings and doesn’t want to burden him with them. Furthermore, Seldon has stated that when he does marry, he wants it to be for love.

So after this walk with Seldon, she completely loses her chance with Mr. Gryce. Lily borrows the gig and goes to pick up Judy’s husband, Gus, at the train station. During the ride home, Lily alludes to her money troubles, and Gus offers to invest her funds in Wall Street for her. She readily agrees, and in almost no time at all, Gus hands her a check for $9,000.

But then Gus starts cornering Lily at gatherings, and trying to get her alone. Rumors start flying, and Lily tries her best to avoid him. But when she receives a note from Judy, telling her to visit after 10 one night, and when Lily arrives she learns that Gus sent the note and Judy’s not even in town, Gus makes it explicitly clear that he gave her $9,000, that he never invested her money, and now he expects repayment in the form of an affair. Lily stalks out, and her exit is seen by Selden, who puts two and two together and doesn’t go see Lily the next day as he had originally requested.

Lily’s other main foe in her story is Mrs. Bertha Dorset. Mrs. Dorset had had an affair with Lawrence until he broke it off or she got bored. One day, a servant found letters from Mrs. Dorset, sent to Selden, and she sells the letters to Lily. Lily holds on to those letters, partly hoping to use them in order to get a leg up on Mrs. Dorset, but also holds on to them so they don’t get out, as Selden is also involved.

When Selden doesn’t show up, Lily is greeted by another acquaintance, Mr. Rosedale. Mr. Rosedale aspires to great social heights, and having Lily Bart on his arm would be an amazing get for him. He would get his social acceptance – Mrs. Wharton clearly identifies Mr. Rosedale as Jewish nearly any chance she gets, and therefore makes it clear that only WASPs typically succeeded in New York society – and Lily would get her financial stability. Lily hesitates, because he’s Jewish and she doesn’t love him, and in the middle of her hesitancy the Dorsets invite Lily to accompany them on a European tour.

And why does Mrs, Dorset invite Lily, of all people, to Europe? Why to distract her husband while she runs around with another young dude. Lily is completely oblivious to Mrs. Dorset’s goings-on, and is a true friend to Mr. Dorset. Until Mr. Dorset tells Lily that he knows everything, that Bertha’s shtupping whatever the dude’s name was, and he plans on getting a divorce. Lily manages to run into Selden in Monte Carlo and she tells him what she knows, and his heart melts once more and urges her to get out of town immediately. But Lily decides to wait until the morning, but that is one night too late; that very night, Bertha announces to everyone, including Lily, that Lily is not returning to the yacht. And just like that, any social cache Lily had is gone.

Lily returns to New York as her aunt passes away, and the hopes of receiving her legacy are dashed when the will is read and all of her aunt’s inheritance save ten thousand dollars goes to her cousin. Lily is removed from her home, and goes to be a secretary for a new-money up-and-comer. But when the woman’s morals clash with Lily’s own, she leaves her employ and goes to work as a milliner’s apprentice.

That’s Lily’s tragedy – her morals are in complete contradiction to Society’s. At any time, she could have blackmailed Bertha into supporting her through the use of her letters. She could have explained the Gus Trenor situation to Selden – that she thought he had invested her money, not given her a loan with sex as his repayment plan. She could have married Rosedale when he asked her instead of running away to Europe. But in not compromising her morals to Society’s needs, she doomed her own ability to live.

Huh. Apparently, the title comes from a line from the Bible: “The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning, but the heart of fools is in the house of mirth” (Ecc. 7-4). (I said “huh” back there because I’m not a Bible reader.) But the significance of the title now makes a whole lotta sense. Poor Lily Bart is truly a fool, as she struggles to maintain a foothold in Society – the true House of Mirth. And her foolishness and inability to truly become one of the horrible, cold women within that House is her downfall.

Grade for The House of Mirth: 4 stars